How to gather with friends while social distancing, according to an expert

Alongside hand-washing, the most important advice health experts are sharing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is the same: stay away from others. Whatever it’s called — quarantine, self-isolation, or social distancing — the goal is to “flatten the curve” in order to ease the burden on hospitals and health care workers so that the most severe cases can receive adequate medical care.

It’s important to remember that as scary as it sounds, it’s a good thing that everyone who’s able should be doing to save lives in the future. But during the weeks and potentially months of isolation, there will be another kind of crisis: widespread loneliness. As Ezra Klein notes, “we need to take both social distancing and the ‘social recession’ it will cause seriously.”

So how do you self-isolate without feeling totally isolated? I called Priya Parker, master facilitator and author of the book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, to find out why it’s so important to remain connected to each other while we live apart. Parker has spent the last 15 years advising leaders and communities on how to have productive and meaningful conversations and achieve healthy conflict resolution.

We don’t know when or how this will all end, but Parker has a few thoughts on what might come of it, namely that we’ll rethink many of our social rules around work, education, and leisure (a.k.a. fewer wasteful meetings and more time for meaningful connections in workplace settings). It might be months or years until we’ll see them play out, but in the meantime, Skype is your friend. This interview has been edited and condensed.

On a very basic level, why do people come together in groups?

The simplest reason is because we need each other. We gather to do something that almost by definition one couldn’t do by themselves. I find a gathering to be any time three or more people come together for a purpose with a beginning, middle, and end. We come together to mark occasions, to celebrate, to grieve, to mourn, to figure out our beliefs, to plan projects, to barn raise, to barnstorm.

Who we gather with and how we gather depends on what we think of as normal or abnormal; it affects and shapes our sense of identity, our sense of who we are and who the other is, our sense of our belief systems, our norms. Who we are in community determines what we believe the good is. It’s pretty fundamental.

What’s the result of long- or short-term disruption to that ability to come together?

Increased social fragmentation, increased loneliness, and obviously a deep, deep economic impact — and not just the traditional forms of how we think about how goods are exchanged. Social contact and being together in public spaces, whether it’s at the grocery store or a civic space like a park, are all elements that contribute to our collective sense of well-being. When we aren’t able to at least traditionally physically gather in all types of ways, not only celebratory ways, but in our schools, in our places of worship, in our neighborhood associations, it’s a collective stress to our well-being.

Are you fielding a bunch of questions from people who are curious about the etiquette or the proper rules of hosting an upcoming event?

I’m getting messages from people whose weddings have been canceled. They’re trying to figure, “Do we still mark the ceremony? Do we postpone? We’re heartbroken, what do we do?” [Then there are] smaller gatherings, where people feel a little silly to be like, “Do I still host a birthday party for myself or for my daughter?” I have somebody who’s a grandmother and she’s most worried about being able to be a hands-on grandparent and not being able to see the little ones, so they do regular Sunday morning Facetime events.

I am getting those messages, and what I say first is: Cancel the IRL events. Number two, that doesn’t mean you can’t create a digital gathering. Ask yourself, “If I were still to mark this in some way, who would that be with and how would I do it in a way that still allows us to connect with each other?” I’ve been getting messages from friends cooking the same recipes together simultaneously, or friends ordering the same takeout together and getting on a Facetime call. People are getting really creative about, “How do we be together apart?”

One thing that we haven’t been able to do in the past that is very unique to this generation is we have an opportunity to invent. Because of the technology we have, we have the ability to find new ways to gather while we’re apart.

Your background is in conflict resolution, and I’m wondering about people who are forced together at this time: roommates, couples, families or people in nursing homes and things like that. What do we do with unwanted gatherings?

I think that’s a more complicated question, and there are very real, very dangerous consequences for many people to be forced together with people they don’t want to be forced together with. Social distancing will be particularly challenging for vulnerable communities of all types. For those who are in a situation of abuse, they should contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline to seek help. Like all national disasters, this too, will not hit us all equally, for much deeper structural and socio-economic reasons as well.

It’s one thing to be forced together with a roommate you don’t like, it’s another to feel a level of danger. Part of the norms of clinical solutions is you set some ground rules with each other. They can be playful, but set some ground rules of, “We’ve never done this before. How are we going to navigate this so we all stay safe and have a little joy?”

How do you feel less lonely if you’re, say, living alone and don’t feel like you have friends or family to call?

There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely, and part of this time might be an unexpected opportunity to cultivate some spaciousness. But I think the oldest form of a friend that’s not a person is a book. To read, to find ways to create, even within one’s own space, whether that’s writing or doing painting or physical things, doing meditation. To me, I’ve always found solace when I can’t be with other people in books and characters.

Schools and businesses are closing, and work — for those fortunate enough to have jobs that allow it — is moving online. Some people say they’re actually getting a lot out of it. Do you get the sense that this will have any effect on how we think about meetings and education in the future?

I think it will be transformative. It will, by necessity, upend our assumptions of why we do what we do. New ways of being will come together, and it will be a moment in which, in part because it’s unprecedented, there will be a lot of opportunities to create and invent new ways of doing things together and apart. Because we don’t have a choice about it, there will be insight and wisdom and surprising outcomes as to how, after all this passes, we decide to come back together again and what we decide to leave behind.

What kind of rituals or dogma do you think that we might leave behind?

I saw a funny tweet the other day that said something like, “I guess we’ll finally see which meetings could actually just have been taken care of by an email.” I think that workplaces will actually begin to see which kind of their meetings people actually rally around versus which ones people felt an obligation to attend.

I could actually see more meaningful connection time fighting to be preserved. Often people think, “Oh, let’s get over the social stuff and get straight to business.” I could see in this moment, people actually fighting to say, “No, we want structured meaningful connection time.” I could see, in schools, and obviously this has been happening in education for 10 or 15 years if not more, I can see teachers and parents rethinking the roles of who needs to do what and what content needs to be taught from whom. What’s the fundamental role of a teacher? Is it a content provider? Is it a facilitator? Is it a coach? In the education space, I’m aware those conversations have been ongoing.

A lot of the conversations that are happening within fields will be heightened and catalyzed during this phase. If this goes on and it really affects the way the government meets, for example, the Senate has to meet digitally, if it actually affects the core body of our governing system, there could be an opportunity to revisit certain rules of how they gather. I think that getting online, in many contexts can be clunky, but it’s also stripping down. It’s exposing, because there’s not a lot of other things to distract from whether or not your meeting works. One of the elements of gathering virtually is it ends up being an X-ray to how relevant is this and if the way we approach it makes sense.

I’m wondering about how we’ll think about parties after this passes. Do you envision we’ll have more digital parties in the future or do you think we’ll be like, “We missed social interaction so much, let’s have a party for literally everything!”

Both. We’ll reimagine what we can do to make warmth and meaning even when we’re not physically together. I think one of the biggest opportunities is to figure out, there are all these studies that show without physical touch, we’re going to find other ways to create warmth across distances. We’ll be surprised how much digital intimacy can be created.

I think when all this is over, we’ll be running toward each other and being very deeply grateful for and not taking for granted the way we gather. I said this in my book, but one of the first rights that authoritarian governments take away is the freedom to gather, to associate, to come together. One of the things that ends up happening when you can’t actually get together is: You don’t take it for granted.

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